The character of the priest is a participation in the priesthood of the Son of God. He gives them the power to offer the sacrifice of his Body, and to give it as food for eternal life to those who receive it. It is a divine and incomparable character, a power over the Body of Jesus Christ whom the angels adore and a power to forgive sin, a subject of astonishment and thanksgiving to them. Is there anything more admirable or greater? … What can a good priest not accomplish? How many conversions can he not secure? … The well-being of Christianity depends on the priest (Louis Abelly, The Life of the Venerable Servant of God: Vincent de Paul, Edited by John E. Rybolt, CM, [New City Press:New Rochelle, N.Y., 1993]Volume II, p. 253).
This passage is famous in Vincent literature. It places us at the very heart of that which constitutes the best of Vincent de Paul: the priesthood of Jesus Christ; a priest for the poor. Vincent’s journey to that place, however, could appear to be somewhat chaotic but if one accepts that it was step by step that Vincent embraced the excellence of his priestly vocation as it was understood during the seventeenth century, that is, a time when the spirit of the Council of Trent began to awaken people to the need for renewal, then Vincent’s journey can be viewed as a slow but steady movement forward.
Vincent was called and with his active and passionate character he accepted the challenge to respond to this call of God. Beginning in 1613 we can say that Vincent was a good priest and a zealous pastor. He had internalized and personalized his vocation; he had become a man of prayer, a diligent reader of spiritual authors, an excellent preacher, an outstanding catechist and he was surrounded by fervent and devout priests and lay people: O Lord, give us the spirit of your priesthood, which your apostles and the first priests who followed them had; give us the true spirit of this sacred character you bestowed on poor fishermen, artisans, and needy people of that time, to whom, by your grace, you communicated this great, divine spirit. For we, too, are only weak people, Lord, poor workers and peasants; and what comparison is there between us, wretched men, and such a holy, distinguished, heavenly ministry (CCD:XI:278-279).
In 1617 we see that Vincent was spiritually well prepared for his mission. We know that from his conferences he felt that all of this was the result of God’s grace. When one of his relatives was considering a priestly vocation, Vincent wrote him a letter and stated: If I had known what it was when I had the temerity to enter it — as I have come to know since then — I would have preferred to till the soil than to commit myself to such a formidable state of life (CCD:V:569). These words testify to his awareness of the demands of the priesthood. Vincent humbled himself in order to exalt the dignity of the priesthood. He absorbed the spirit of his era. In Paris he associated himself with the pioneers of the French school of spirituality and was greatly influenced by Pierre Bérulle who viewed the priest an “an other Christ”.
Vincent had a great esteem for the sacrament of Orders: There is nothing greater than a priest, to whom Christ gives all power over his natural and his mystical Body, the power to forgive sins, etc. (CCD:XII:75). The priest encourages and animates and teaches the whole Mystical Body; he is a point of union and reconciliation and prays with his people. The path to holiness is found in configuring oneself to Christ, the priest. All priests and lay people are called to live in this state of holiness. Priests are called in a very specific manner, that is, like Christ they are called to exercise two great virtues: reverence toward the Father, compassionate and effective love for the poor (Constitutions, #6). Adoration and mission were two primary themes of the teaching of Pierre Bérulle. According to Vincent the priest should celebrate the sacraments with great respect: It is not enough for us to celebrate Mass, but we must also offer this sacrifice with the greatest devotion possible, in accord with God’s will, conforming ourselves, as far as is in us, with his grace, to Jesus Christ offering himself, when he was on earth, as a sacrifice to his eternal Father (CCD:XI:83).
Vincent did not separate the spirituality of the priest from that of baptized women and men. He liked to say that his Congregation was composed of lay ecclesiastics who lived the common life of Christians and who were in the state of religious life of Saint Peter (CCD:XII:306). He did not present a spirituality that could be referred to as a proper priestly spirituality or a pastoral/missionary spirituality. For Vincent, to be a priest or a brother one had to reaffirm one’s baptismal dignity and it was precisely this that gave a unique character to the Congregation. At the same time, however, Vincent referred to a priestly spirituality when directing the ordinands, during the Tuesday Conferences, and when speaking with those charged with the formation of the Missionaries.
Above all else the priest builds up the Mystical Body of Christ, taking upon himself the burdens of the unfortunate ones in society: Those poor people give us their goods for that purpose; while they are working and struggling against poverty, we are like Moses and must continually raise our hands to heaven for them (CCD:XI:191).
How great is the ministry of priestly formation! New men are needed to minister to the new concerns of people. Thus Vincent saw the need to establish seminaries in order for priestly spirituality to flourish. In 1631 we see Vincent’s great concern for the ordinands and in 1641 he established the first seminary in Annecy. The formation of good priests became his great concern: I praise God for the number of priests the Bishop of …. is sending you. You will have plenty of them if you take the trouble to form them in the true spirit of their state, which consists especially in the interior life and the practice of prayer and the virtues. It is not enough to teach them chant, ceremonies, and a little moral theology; what is important is to form them to solid piety and devotion. To do that, Monsieur, we must be the first to be filled with the above, for it would be almost useless to instruct them on these things without giving the example. We must be full reservoirs in order to let our water spill out without becoming empty, and we must possess the spirit with which we want them to be animated, for no one can give what he does not have (CCD:IV:570).
Beneath all of this, however, was a concern for the eternal salvation of the people of God, especially those who were abandoned by the Church. The unique style of Vincentian formation is found in its focused attention on the poor: There is something else: the Church’s need for good priests to make up for all the ignorance and vice that cover the earth and to rescue the poor Church from the deplorable state, for which good souls should weep tears of blood (CCD:XII:76).
This perspective coincided with Vincent’s spiritual journey; it affirmed his actions and highlighted his ministry in such a way that today we are still obliged in conscience to respond to the questions he raised: Are not those who are poor the afflicted members of Our Lord? Are they not our brothers and sisters? And if priests abandon them, who do your think is going to help them? (CCD:XII:77).